USNS Hospital Ship Brings Much-Needed ‘Comfort’ to Nicaragua
By Geraldine Cook June 30, 2011
After more than three years of living with cataracts, farmer José Martinez, whose face shows the effects of a long life of honest labor under the relentless Nicaraguan sun, was starting to lose hope that he’d ever see clearly again.
SAN JUAN DEL SUR, Nicaragua — After more than three years of living with cataracts, farmer José Martinez, whose face shows the effects of a long life of honest labor under the relentless Nicaraguan sun, was starting to lose hope that he’d ever see clearly again.
So when the USNS Comfort hospital ship dropped anchor in the nearby bay of San Juan del Sur, it was literally a sight for sore eyes for the 79-year-old Martínez.
“They took very good care of me. I don’t think there is anywhere else in Nicaragua that takes such good care of its patients,” Martínez said as he convalesced in a tidy recovery room aboard the 894-foot former oil supertanker that was converted into a naval Mercy-class hospital ship in the mid 1980s. “I am very thankful and happy for everything.”
Martínez’s enthusiasm is shared by others aboard the Comfort, which spent a week in late June attending to the medical needs of thousands of Nicaraguans and providing free surgeries to more than a dozen patients each day.
From the early morning hours, patients from San Juan del Sur — the departmental capital of Rivas and several outlying towns — lined up at the health clinic for the chance to be seen by a U.S. medic or nurse, many of whom were accompanied by local translators.
Those needing surgeries that could be performed easily without requiring follow-up care were transported out across the choppy waters to the hospital ship for surgery and overnight care. The beneficiaries of the free health services praised the U.S. humanitarian mission for its orderliness, effectiveness and friendliness.
“They treated me excellently,” said Gabriela Gómez, 35, after returning to shore following gallbladder surgery aboard the Comfort.
Gómez said she had been waiting for six months for surgery. She said she was afraid to undergo surgery at her local health clinic in the town of San Jorge, and unable to pay $1,000 to have the operation done in a private hospital in Managua.
Besides helping thousands of patients, she said, the Comfort also provided a great service to the overburdened public health-care system, where waiting times for surgeries and specialty care can be months on end.
“It was a privilege for me to have an opportunity like this, because here in the public hospitals it takes a long time to get operated on,” she said. “So it’s an opportunity for the health system too, because the hospital ship helps to reduce their patient waitlist.”
Bayardo Antonio Tenorio, a 71-year-old retired farmer who underwent cataract surgery aboard the Comfort, says the U.S. medical mission is a godsend for folks like him “who don’t have the money to pay for an operation.”
Tenorio said the personal treatment from the U.S. medical staff was “excellent,” and he appreciated that doctors the time to explain the procedure to him beforehand. The soft-spoken farmer also said he was happy to learn that the U.S. mission does not distinguish among political affiliations, as sometimes occurs in other Nicaraguan health clinics.
“They didn’t ask what party you belong to, they just ask what illness you have,” Tenorio quipped. Besides providing health care, the Comfort’s “Continuing Promise” mission — which will visit nine countries during its five months at sea — also serves as a tactical and strategic training opportunity for the U.S. armed forces.
“If you look at the number of disasters that have occurred over time [in this region], the ability to work with partner nations in a peacetime setting or non-disaster setting prior to having to work side by side [in disaster response] is huge,” said the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Brian C. Nickerson. “It’s a great rehearsal.”
For example, he said that when the Comfort was deployed to help respond to Haiti’s catastrophic January 2010 earthquake, the U.S. humanitarian mission worked in tandem with a Colombian military response team.
“We do a lot of work with the Colombian military, so to have a Colombian ship next to us, to have doctors and nurses from Colombia who we had already worked with in the past, made those operations run more smoothly,” Nickerson said. “So we couldn’t ask for a better training opportunity than these humanitarian missions.”
Nickerson said the U.S. military also has a “strong working relationship” with its Nicaraguan counterparts. “Continued Promise” – which has now visited Nicaragua five times since 2007, three times aboard the USNS Comfort and twice in the form of smaller amphibious craft – offers the chance to strengthen that relationship even further.
The mission also looks for chances to “perform subject matter expert exchanges with military counterparts” in areas related to force protection or aviation, said Nickerson. “This is truly a civil-military operation here in the area.”
The Baltimore-based Comfort, which was delivered to the Navy’s Sealift Command in 1987, is the third such hospital ship to bear the name.
A BIG thanks too must go to the Military based at the US Embassy in Managua… As this operation had been worked on since Oct. 2010 with them doing the leg work to make it happen. Hats off to the Men and Women of the US Military and all of the Locals here in the dept. of Rivas and San Juan del Sur that turned too and got the job done. Thanks to all that helped. I’m Nicaraguan I haven’t noticed that the ship was here. I have a 3 year old son that was born at 29 weeks weighting only 1000 grams, and currently has Hypospadias. I want him to be tested with the CAT scanner and also I want him to have surgery. What I can do to find you? No matter how I will to reach you… help me, please.